Usually I need coffee, pastry, and an uninterrupted hour to properly read one of L.M. Sacasas’s essays in The Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology, culture, and morality. They are dense, brilliant, and provocative, and they refuse to be skimmed. But recently Sacasas sent a piece so short and strong, it punched through all distractions.
With three simple sentences, he traces our evolution from the pre-modern village to the metaverse. “Very broad generalizations,” he admits—but that is fine with me. I need those generalizations as a framing device, a way to think more clearly about what we have lost and where we now find ourselves.
Sacasas begins with pre-modern times, when the “information environment” was essentially a village—tightly bounded, hyperfocused (a word they never would have needed to use) on what was local. People of all ages and sorts and opinions sharing a common lifeworld. Information was embodied. News whispered as gossip; knowledge gained by apprenticeship. Place and community structured experience.
With modernity, the world broke open. We had “a de-situated public sphere,” and all we shared was “institutional and expert knowledge mediated by print and mass media.” In other words, we read about faraway places and abstract ideas in a morning paper propped behind our cornflakes, then listened to Walter Cronkite in the evening. He was an “anchor,” providing continuity in a world whose boundaries were dissolving. Knowledge was becoming more abstract and complex, and electronic media—exciting, colorful, far-reaching—were beginning to overtake the tangible pulp of books and newspapers. Nations mattered more than villages—but their affairs were harder to comprehend. “The public sphere became a metaphor rather than a shared place.”
With this dizzying disembodiment and increasing complexity, we realized how much we did not know or understand, so we leaned hard on specialists in law, medicine, industry, technology, government, even media itself. They were the elite class that would guide us through uncharted waters. They were the ones trained to read the map and keep a lookout for hazards and storms. We resigned ourselves (usually with relief) to our own narrow bit of chosen expertise and trusted others to tell us the truth about their expertise. This created an illusion of consensus—a word “whose etymology suggests feeling or sensing together,” Sacasas points out. We took comfort in this apparent return to the security of an older way of life. We still had much in common; Walter reminded us of that every night.
That period of “shared institutional and expert knowledge” climaxed in the late twentieth century, and its peak was short-lived. It felt like forever because it was the world that shaped a lot of us still alive today, and it made earlier ways look as distant and quaint as that world looks to young people now. “What often gets overlooked in discussions about the state of the public sphere,” Sacasas writes, “is just how brief and tenuous the age of consensus really was.” Cable and satellite tv swiftly destroyed the monopoly of broadcast news. Digital tv multiplied the channels. We found out some of our experts were lying to us.
For another brief spell, the disillusionment rested, cynicism with no place to go. Then the internet arrived, handing everybody the chance to publish their own opinion. Those with whom the opinion resonated glommed on. Cliques formed. Now any “expert” information could be contradicted, the elites cut down to size. Cynicism turned to rage, as people were fed all sorts of divergent narratives and whipped up into paranoia about conspiracies.
Today, though Lester tries, the only real anchors are one’s own internet community, silo, or tribe (defined in any way we choose, by minority ID, religion, work, ideology, age, class, hobby). Commonality is more often virtual than physical, and it is exclusionary, with tight prerequisites. “What we are now living through is the collapse of the modern arrangement,” Sacasas summarizes, “and the emergence of virtually shared common words mediated chiefly by digital media.” The experts are still with us, but their audiences have splintered and their omniscience has been yanked away.
Weirdly, that brief time of illusory consensus prepared us for this drifting, anchorless digital world: “The age of the mass media spectacle prepared us for the age of the participatory spectacle that was social media. The loneliness of mass society drove us to embrace the promise of ubiquitous connection. The valorization of information led us to indiscriminately embrace the disorienting conditions of information superabundance.”
When cultural critics fret about all this “fragmentation,” the way we now identify with “tribes” and hide in “silos,” I get the sense that it is individuals who are to blame. We are all too opinionated and lazy and antisocial, and we must begin exposing ourselves to different viewpoints. And so we must—but the shift is bigger than any of us, and no one’s fault. The changes are systemic, huge, and permanent. The new opportunities are mind-blowing (research collaborations across the globe, three-dimensional AI guiding surgery, information at our fingertips from any era, any place, translated, magnified, and dissected) but they are also ominous.
Sacasas quotes Hannah Arendt, whom he has studied for years: “Only the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.” We shy away from those conversations now. Our public sphere is “a metaphor rather than a shared place.”
Small towns and close-knit neighborhoods seem to chug along with a little more sanity, a little less isolation and dependence on technology. The scale makes a shared common sense possible. People still trade information verbally, person-to-person, and feel seen and heard by one another. Local politics remains lively because the issues are graspable. In big cities and chilly, self-absorbed suburbs, many people rarely see—or want to see—their neighbors. They are deluged with news about alarming problems they feel helpless to tackle. Unless they take a cheesy Ghost Tour or join a historic preservation group, they will not have much sense of shared history, traded stories, lore. Not much sense of place, period. Instead, we talk about “spaces”—safe spaces, the digital space.
How do we get our bodies back? Avatars in the metaverse are not the answer. How do we dig our roots into a small, manageable community with a sense of place and find news and knowledge we can trust and travel through space and time in the rapidly expanding virtual space? The planet needs saving, democracy needs healing. We will never again be able to automatically trust institutions and experts; nor will we each have the expertise required to detect lies and mistakes on our own. How do we rebuild a common world, when “the worlds we now inhabit are digitized realms incapable by their nature and design of generating a broadly shared experience of reality”? With cute animal videos and a few fleeting memes?
I close my eyes, envisioning a medieval-but-futuristic landscape dotted with tiny enclaves and frequent clashes among them. Silly, right? The stuff of dystopian thrillers.
And then I look at a map that shows Illinois in green, surrounded by sixteen reddish-orange states that no longer allow abortion, and I think of all the other social policies that travel along with that difference. And then I think of how separate southern Illinois feels from Chicagoland. And I look at the numbers of people who are moving in order to live among those who are likeminded. And I wonder if it is already happening.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.